Flatiron District

Birreria

New Yorkers were elated when Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich’s Italian food emporium Eataly opened last year. There was only one problem: Eataly didn’t seem to be intended for New Yorkers. A massive marketing and PR effort across the U.S. and in Europe meant that Eataly instantly filled up with tourists – even the ones who can get decent biscotti at home.

Fortunately, the Red Apple bus crowd does not seem to have discovered the new rooftop restaurant on top of Eataly yet. You’ll still be elbowed by the crowds on your way to the bar at Birreria, but at least none of those elbows will be loaded down with Century 21 bags.  (more…)

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Rye House

Of all the qualities you can manufacture in a new restaurant – flattering lighting, good music, a smoky barbecue smell – the most elusive is fun. The other ingredients can come together perfectly, but if that feeling of good times is missing in the center, the final product can still fall flat.

Rye House in the Flatiron District is a relatively recent addition to the scene, but it already feels like a lot of good times have been had here. This may be largely because of the bar, which dominates a spacious front room and is manned by Lynnette Marrero and Jim Kearns, formerly of Freeman’s. Classic cocktails and a large selection of beer on tap draw in a big after-work crowd of the Park Bar variety – i.e., lots of guys. (more…)

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Eataly: A Strategy

If agoraphobia is a fear of crowds, and claustrophobia is a fear of being trapped small places, then what is that particularly New York fear of being trapped in a mob of people, as at Macy’s at Christmastime? Whatever the name, this is exactly the emotion that Eataly elicited during the first few months of its opening, widely touted not just in New York but apparently in every tourist brochure.

Bucatini all'Amatriciana, La Pasta, Eataly

If you could make your way through the door when Eataly opened this fall, you would be caught up in a mob of Italian food enthusiasts, swept past a Lavazza espresso station, past aisles of cheeses, olive oil, chocolate and dried pasta, and deposited somewhere in the vortex of this new mega food court by chefs and television stars Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. The line just to put down your name for a table took 10 minutes the first time we visited – the wait for an actual table was two hours. The four casual restaurants – La Pizza, La Pasta, Il Pesce and Le Verdure – looked promising, but when they’re oversubscribed to this extent, we had to say “basta!” and head out the door. (more…)

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Eleven Madison Park

The democratization of the food world is in many ways a good thing. An appreciation of taco trucks, Chinatown pastry shops and country barbecue stands has trickled up from the populace to food authorities like the NYT and Food and Wine Magazine, which expanded its circle of “Best New Chefs” to include not just Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller (both class of ’88) but Roy Choi of LA’s Kogi Korean Barbecue trucks (class of ’10). A more level playing field has encouraged restauranteurs and chefs to strive for greatness, no matter how small or casual the venue.

Eleven Madison Park, Interior

But what’s been lost in the transition from “gourmand” (farewell, Gourmet) to “foodie” (hello, Yelp) is an appreciation of truly excellent food and service. When seeking out the latest “it” food, be it a pig roast or a roving dessert truck, diners are now willing to endure long lines for bad cuts of meat while Josh Ozersky snacks in the background. Just as it’s important to study the cut and feel of designer clothing to see what H&M should approximate, you have to visit a four-star place like Eleven Madison Park every once in a while to understand what lesser dining experiences lack. (more…)

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ABC Kitchen

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the few big-name New York chefs who has not gone full speed ahead into locally-sourced, organic cuisine, finally throws his hat into the ring with ABC Kitchen. The result could be called Fusion Cuisine 2.0: Send a talented French chef trained in Asia to the Union Square Greenmarket, where American sugar snap peas, Latin peppers and artisanal meat all vie for your attention, and you never know what new creation will land on the table.

ABC Kitchen, Exterior

Behind the minimalist exterior, the restaurant space itself, on the south side of the giant ABC Home store in the Flatiron district, is wonderfully inviting, slightly formal in an aristocratic country-home sort of way, but not at all stuffy. Mismatched china, antique silverware grace the simple white lacquered tables under the old exposed beams overhead. The buzzy but low-key atmosphere was just sceney enough to be interesting but not distracting. (more…)

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Almond

Tell someone the address of Almond restaurant, and they’re liable to say: “Wasn’t that Borough/Rocco’s/Caviar and Banana/Commune?” The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes. Walking into the space may also make you experience déjà vu all over again, because interior has many of the same elements of its predecessor Borough – the same tables and chairs, the same posh billiards room  in back, the same rough-hewn wood lining the walls, the same popular bar scene – with a prettified face lift of coral wallpaper and gilt-framed mirrors.

almond-restaurant-nyc-1

Before you consider the place doomed, know that while this is still El Chod’s space, the owners of the very successful Almond restaurant from the Hamptons are much of the time, making sure things run smoothly. The crowd has gotten a polish too. Gone are those grubby locavores that patronized Borough, now the crowd includes stick-thin women in wrap dresses and big jewelry, men with winter tans and cashmere V-necks. (“They’re not on our team, ladies,” our waitress whispered.) Chelsea Clinton dined there on a recent night. Celebrities, gays, emaciated women, face lifts: Almond is a Hamptons away from the Hamptons, and I mean that in the best possible way. (more…)

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SD26

Restaurant partnerships can be a tricky thing. As with any celebrity couple, there are joyous, hyper-publicized births (of new restaurants) and bitter divorces played out in the tabloids (or Flo Fab’s column). So it’s a good thing that Tony and Marisa May are father and daughter, because the dining public would benefit from them sticking together for a while. The new SD26 injects Marisa’s modern, even trendy style into the old restaurant San Domenico, but maintains Tony May’s hospitality and chef Odette Fada’s classic Italian cuisine.

SD26 Lounge

Anyone interested in Italian wine should come here for the bar, where a huge wine selection is listed on Palm-Pilot-like devices. Sort the list by country, then by region or varietal, or sort the entire thing by price. SD26’s Italian wine consultant wrote extensive descriptions of each wine, though a few things get lost in translation to amusing effect: The bottle we chose on a recent night apparently goes well with “white meats and redheads.” (more…)

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Bar Stuzzichini and Shorty’s.32

Fine dining is fine, but let’s face it: most of the time, most of us just want to eat. This is particularly the case when you’re going out with a gang of friends. It’s not about the provenance of the foie gras or that rare bottle of Screaming Eagle on the wine list, it’s about good food in a fun atmosphere.

Two places that satisfy in this regard are Shorty’s.32 and Bar Stuzzichini, where the gang and I ate recently. The reports are true – Bar Stuzzichini ain’t much to look at. For one thing, the wrought-iron chandeliers are attached to foam core board ceilings, which means the decorator should have his license revoked. As I have tried to explain to the aesthetically-impaired super of my own building many a time, foam core board = anathema. Though the atmosphere is lively, the restaurant’s makeshift Italian design makes Morandi look real by comparison. We termed the décor “D-list Morandi.”

But maybe I just had A, B, C, and D lists on the brain because of the pop culture symposium going on at this table of media junkies. Of Jada Pinkett Smith and the Page Six blind item: “She makes Queen Latifah look straight.”

Finally the talk turned to the menu. After five to ten minutes of debate, we decided what to order. Actually, the gang didn’t decide so much as agree to disagree. We just ordered more, which is fine at Bar Stuzzichini because there are so many menu items that you can “pick” at (stuzzicare), and most are inexpensive. Though efficient enough, our young waiter was very serious and a little bizarre. It was like having Rainn Wilson‘s character from Six Feet Under as your server.

One of the best things here – and a reason to go back – is the chickpea fritters, which were actually on our B list of things to order. Thank God we went to the B list, because these were airy, light, fried little pillows that reminded me of actual Italian street food, particularly the deep fried cubes of polenta you can find everywhere around Florence but nowhere here. Manna from heaven. Trained at Wallsé under Kurt Gutenbrunner, chef Paul Di Bari is also an expert at making potentially heavy foods taste light as air.

Also delicious were the smoky grilled octopus with a glaze of what seemed like reduced, slightly sweet balsamic vinegar, the arancini (rice balls), which were stuffed not with the usual mozz but a slightly funkier, more complex cheese like taleggio, and the fried artichokes, which perfectly suit the “picking” theme of the restaurant.

I was actually not a fan of the deep fried meatballs. Though perfectly crunchy outside and moist within, they seemed sad without a little marinara sauce. Grilled zucchini were ho-hum.

The gnocchi that has some people raving did not make as big of an impression on me. Maybe I’ve gotten too attached to gnocchi that’s been pan-seared, an Asian-dumpling technique that’s now used on pasta like the fabulous bacon gnocchi at Allen & Delancey. Also, the amatriciana sauce didn’t taste enough of pork. At first I blamed the use of delicate guanciale in place of the usual pancetta. (Flo Fab has it that guanciale is the authentic ingredient of choice.) But Crispo‘s excellent bucatini with amatriciana sauce is made with guanciale, and it tastes much heartier. Bar Stuzzichini’s erred so much on the side of gentleness that it tasted more like a marinara sauce.

Vegetarians should rejoice, because some of the best dishes here are meat- and fish-free, like the orecchiette with cauliflower and breadcrumbs, which was wonderfully garlicky. Likewise, the pasta and chickpeas, which is more of a soup, was perfectly prepared, with both the noodles and chickpeas having a nice al dente texture.

Two pieces of cake – the chocolate and the orange-scented olive oil cake – were devoured almost before I could capture their existence on film. They were both dense, very fresh, and intensely flavored.

On the way out, BFast, an editor at a fashion magazine, donned a rather unusual khaki cl
oak with double breasted buttons running down where the sleeves would have been.

“It’s the Hound of the Baskervilles!” Marciano cried.

“I have a mystery for you to solve,” B.Fast said. “Where are my arms?”

A satisfying evening, though not as heart-poundingly thrilling as the time we sat next to Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky at Shorty’s.32 a while back.

“It just so much cooler because they’re both here,” Lina said. She would know; she’s a “radio personality.” How is a radio personality different than a regular personality? Does one lose one’s personality as soon as one is off air? Not in this case.

This is another fun place with some interior design problems. The lampshades were like something you would be forced to put in your apartment on an interior design show, only to take them down as soon as the decorator left the building. Keep your eyes below lamp-level, however, and you’ll find a cool space with party-boy music on the stereo and a vibe reminiscent of Red Cat, though chef Josh Eden comes to Shorty’s.32 from working with Jean-Georges, not Jimmy Bradley.

The food is less problematic than the decor. Creamy, luscious Jerusalem artichoke soup was met with a hallelujah chorus. The pork belly was good, though it needed some more oomph. Even better were the truly legumey beans served alongside – these tasted as fresh and gently cooked as California raw cuisine.

Cavatelli would be the best of the appetizers were I not accursed with a strong dislike of truffles, which have infiltrated everything these days. Hand-rolled and homemade, this was the most sophisticated of the first courses.

As we strained to hear Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky over music that approached rock concert decibel, the entrees dropped. Fish ‘n’ bacon, fish ‘n’ bacon, fish ‘n’ bacon: A great combination that gives you reason to eat fish all winter. Shorty’s was the baked skate with bacon. On the opposite side of the fish spectrum was the sea bass, light and citrusy with just a little char. Quinoa on the side had a wonderfully nubbly texture to complement the delicate fish.

Is it lame to order chicken in a restaurant? Certainly not here – it’s the best of the entrees, and it’s downright decadent, buttery with a crispy skin and a garlicky aroma throughout. Short ribs were served boneless – a neat trick, especially since they had all the flavor of bone-in ribs but were much easier to eat.

My grilled New York strip steak was initially off-putting because it arrived already sliced. Since the age of seven or so I’ve liked to cut my own meat. Chalk it up to a weird pet peeve. But it went beautifully with the fries, which had a hint of bacon flavor to them. Mmmm… more bacon…

Like Bar Stuzzichini, Shorty’s.32 satisfied. Good music, good food, good drinks, and good times. When it comes to dining of any kind, sometimes that’s all you need.

Bar Stuzzichini
928 Broadway between 21st and 22nd Streets
New York, New York
212-780-5100

Shorty’s.32
199 Prince Street between Sullivan and MacDougal Streets
New York, New York
212-375-8275



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Maoz Vegetarian

The recent DOH shuttering of the popular vegetarian go-to spot Gobo threw downtowners into a tizzy. Gobo has since reopened (and sounds busy), but still… Though I’m not a vegetarian, and will probably return to Gobo someday, I sympathize with the squeamish. What’s a person for the ethical treatment of animals to do?

Fortunately a new rat-free vegetarian take-out place has opened in Union Square, land of the thousand yoga studios. Maoz Vegetarian (pronounced like Mao Zedong), is a popular European falafel chain that’s “dedicated to spreading the vegetarian lifestyle worldwide!” Because I am fascinated by things that are popular in Europe but may or may not catch on here, like David Hasselhoff, Mentos, and Pret A Manger, I decided to give it a try.

Though the space itself is tiny, with seating for just three or four people, the green-and-white tiled interior is very appealing. Squeaky clean and minimalist, Maoz is a vegetarian place designed for the IKEA era.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about a falafel sandwich, but Maoz’s extensive toppings bar is a new twist on an old standard. You can go wild piling your pita with cucumbers and dill, bulgur wheat salad, pickled carrot slices, cole slaw, olives, tomatoes and onions, excellent roast cauliflower, even cilantro sauce or salsa.

Dense, bright green and mildly spicy, the falafel tastes fresh and light. Here, too, Maoz shows more flexibility than the average falafel joint by offering it in several forms: as a Maoz sandwich (5 falafel balls) or a Junior (just 3), with feta, eggplant or hummus, or as a salad topper. The hummus is bland, but the Belgian fries are tasty. Like the falafel, they have a nice slow afterburn of Middle Eastern spiciness.

The new falafel shop also presents a solution to a common problem: What kind of portable, healthy food makes for an easy lunchtime picnic in Union Square park? Maoz is the answer. No fork required.

Maoz Vegetarian
38 Union Square East, between 16th and 17th Streets
212-260-1988

Mentos: the freshmaker!

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Boqueria

A funny thing happened when I sat down to write a review of Boqueria: Frank Bruni decided to do the same thing. It’s never advisable to be behind the Times, especially when it comes to restaurant reviews. For one thing, I’ll probably never be able to get a table at Boqueria again. Frank Bruni’s review landed on the kitchen table on Wednesday morning, but I didn’t look at it until I wrote this. I didn’t want anything Count Frankula (of Bruni Digest fame) said to color my own memories of the place.

When my friend and I arrive at Boqueria, early, since they do not take reservations, we like the looks of the place. Beyond the lively bar area, the dining room manages to feel intimate and open at the same time, with a long, candlelit communal table running down the center, and banquettes with bar-height stools lining the sides. It’s great for people-watching, and the chic crowd is easy on the eyes. Boqueria is also well-lit, which is a relief. Is eating in near-darkness a Spanish custom? I think it may be, from my own dim memories of holding up candles to plates of tapas in Barcelona and New York. Not being able to distinguish between a plate of dates and a plate of pickled peppers adds an unwanted element of excitement to the meal. Fortunately, there is no such mystery at Boqueria.

In the Times review, I see later that Bruni describes the space as “happy, peppy” and praises Boqueria for having “the virtues of stylishness without vanity.” Agreed. He also mentions the bar-height seating, which “has a practical benefit, along with a theoretical one. It puts you at eye level with servers, making your interactions with them feel smoother and friendlier. And it means that if Manhattan somehow flooded, you could dine at Boqueria and keep your shoes dry.” Wha? Bruni’s flights of fancy can be vaguely terrifying. It’s like that moment during a taxi ride when, at seventy miles per hour, you realize your driver is certifiably insane. The high stools aren’t for floods. They’re for checking out the “young, good-looking diners”! But the stool height does make it easier to talk to the servers – ours was quite knowledgeable and did not need to lean on a sommelier to recommend one of the great Spanish wines.

For the tapas, my friend gravitates towards the cojonudo, fried quail egg and chorizo on toast, on the grounds that everything is better with quail eggs. I love the taste of these, because I love anything that’s bacon and eggs. “You don’t need the toast,” she says, chewing contemplatively. It’s true: the dry toast detracts from the dish, sucking up all the flavor and not really contributing anything. But the chorizo-egg layer, which we pick up and eat on its own, is wonderfully smoky, spicy and creamy.

Bruni calls these “my kind of finger food.” Bacon and eggs must be a sure crowd pleaser.

The pa de fetge, a boar terrine, has been recommended for anyone who likes country pate. It’s very good, more pungent and flavorful than a plain pork terrine, and the caramelized onions served alongside are a great accompaniment. With the datiles con beacon y almendras, dates stuffed with almonds and cabrales and wrapped in bacon, each bite hits several extremes on the taste scale: the aching sweet of the dates, saltiness of the bacon, and the mouth-numbing blue of the cheese. The chef has taken standard cocktail party fare and turned it up several notches. It is intriguing and delicious.

Bruni doesn’t mention the terrine, but he does recommend the salad with baby squid, the suckling pig, and the anchovies. Though he doesn’t talk about dates, he comments on chef Seamus Mullen’s “salty effects,” but says he “wisely leavens his salty impulses with sweet ones.” Agreed.

The lamb shank that comes as a main course is only OK, which is surprising because the prunes serves alongside are such a nice balance to the meaty flavor. “I wish some of this,” my friend says, pointing to the prunes with her fork, “were on this. You don’t even get the sense that they cooked it in wine.” My friend, who is also a trained chef, adds that it’s quite easy and surprisingly inexpensive to cook a lamb shank at home. I’ll have to remember that if I ever return to lamb, meat trend of the moment.

Bruni thinks the lamb shank is “beautifully braised.” Well, I suppose it’s not ugly, but ours is not that great, not a unified dish. Disagree.

The sardine special turns out to be an experiment on a plate: sardines cooked two different ways, wrapped up and fried, or left in one shining fillet and laid across a potato. The latter, less experimental method tastes the best. I just had to try this after my memories of the butterfish escabeche at the Tasting Room.

Perhaps on crack, Bruni thinks the sardine special is “terrific.” I do feel a twinge of envy, however, reading about his sardines. Where were the tons of olives and pine nuts in my fried sardine? Did they recognize Bruni and slip him some extra olives? Gyp.

The place is packed and noisy by now, and I’ve identified someone I know across the room – not surprising in this place. Still hungry, my friend and I continue plowing through the menu. She from a selection of cheeses – she is very knowledgeable on the matter, and so I space out as she orders and can’t remember the cheese choices now. At any rate, they were good. The pinxto de jamon y melon, serrano ham and melon, arrives in kebob form: melon balls interspersed with salty folds of ham on a skewer. It’s an unusual and pretty presentation that showcases the excellent quality of the ingredients. Brandada de hacalao, salt cod brandade, might be one of the oldest-school comfort foods there are, if you have read this book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. My friend used to make brandade in culinary school, and explains that the salt cod must be mixed very carefully with mashed potatoes to get just the right flavor and consistency, which Boqueria accomplishes nicely.

By now we have racked up quite a tab, as per usual. As most of us who’ve felt the blow to our wallets have guessed, tapas has been one of the big culinary trends in recent years because it’s a real money maker. There are even cooking school seminars that advocate chefs to cash in on the phenomenon. Despite this nagging sense of rip-off…

Here we reach the biggest difference between Bruni’s take and mine: an expense account, or lack thereof. He waxes poetic about “the tapas spirit” which “took root here long ago, spreading wide and far” and allows one to “build meals incrementally.” And check this Bruni humdinger: “The whole concept of grazing? It’s just the tapas spirit wrapped in a gerund with reassuring connotations of restr
aint.” Whoa, Nelly. I’ll leave the ghosts of tapas past to the Bruni Digest – what a feast. But even the Gray Lady herself hinted that this whole “incremental plates” thing might be a price-fixing scheme, unwittingly initiated by the king of small plates, Tom Colicchio.

…I still find myself looking longingly at the plate of Pimi Entos Del Padron, blistered padron peppers with coarse sea salt, that arrives at the table next to ours. They look a lot like Nobu’s excellent version. I’ll have to save it for next time, though, if I can ever get a table at Boqueria again.

Thanks, Frank.
Boqueria: two stars.

Boqueria
53 West 19th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
212-255-4160

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